Beyond the Blurb: On Critics and Criticism. Published by Cow Eye Press

« Marginalizing the Academy | Main | They're All Wasted »




I don't think it's just the CW MFA programs bringing this about. Many of the online critique groups and help sites for writers seem to get an unusual amount of "your sentences are too long," "your commas are misplaced," "italics are only used for...," "where's the plot," and my personal favorite, "You have to have action in the opening paragraphs."

I don't think that many of these "writers" have actually done much reading at all. They're focusing on correct form and what they've been told an editor or publisher is looking for, rather than being driven by inspiration and experience.

Jay Quackenbush

I agree completely, and I've taken to calling it workshop fiction myself and if you want a perfect example of it check out Heidi Julavitz's novel "The Mineral Palace." I've written a couple of notes along these lines over at Wet Asphalt. Click the meta-tag for "workshop fiction" and they should come up.

Jonathan  Mayhew

You see the same thing with poets who don't read, or don't read beyond a few things suggested to them in the workshop.


The sense I get from my own students is that they come to class seeking to express themselves, as if art were a faintly therapeutic endeavor. They are absolutely chafed, at least at first, by the structured writing exercises I assign them, all of which are designed to accompany, in some sense, the readings I make them endure. The idea of approaching fiction as something with an underlying structure, with a formal design that enforces various tacit "rules," is alien to their way of thinking -- at most, they have been obliged to read certain standard works in order to absorb therefrom the lesson du jour (e.g., "Hills Like White Elephants," to learn dialogue technique, as if Hemingway's were the last word on the matter). I find it interesting that among my undergraduate students, at least, the ones most receptive to new approaches, to "play," and to reading work that utilizes techniques that can be appropriated and modified, are those majoring in music or fine arts -- two fields in which one could never be granted a degree, much less a terminal degree, without a firm grasp of theory, composition, counterpoint, perspective, etc., and the way that predecessors have used these things. The others privilege subject matter above all and are often astonished when I chastise them for mistakes as elemental as subject/verb agreement, abrupt tense shifts, etc.

Jonathan David Jackson

Thank you so much for continuing to spotlight Stephen Dixon and for this excerpt from the Baltimore City Paper--and the BCP is still a great alternative weekly years after I and so many under-the-radar hack-lit-stringers wrote for them under a fabulous editor named Sono Motoyama. Professor Dixon just retired from the Writing Seminars at Johns Hopkins University and his contributions have been immeasurable to generations of writing students in both the undergraduate and graduate programs there.

As someone who teaches freshmen undergraduate fiction writing I can say without a doubt that his reflections are right. Most beginning undergraduate creative writing students are simply not armed with a "canon"--with having read major 17th to 20th century literature of the English-speaking world (beyond J.D. Salinger which is the top author cited by them in the little q&a about their past reading that I sometimes do each spring).

Their lack of knowledge extends to technical issues of craft: when I talk about deus ex machina in a workshop about one of their stories and give an example of a highly motivated, well-deserved (rather than contrived) plot turn or character development they have not enountered the fictional examples that I cite.

I first taught an introduction to fiction writing class (at Hopkins as a graduate student, in fact) in 1994 and I've spent a lot of time asking my students directly why there is this gap of knowledge among them--among those who were children during the middle to late 1980s especially. One thing that my students routinely tell me is that the reason is hardly monocausal. It's not just poor curriculum management in subpar high schools. Some of my students attend quite strong high schools with excellent literature and writing programs. They tell me that, honestly, it's a combination of so many factors, including a huge cultural shift in what is valued on a national level as far as literature versus media arts. One student recently told me in an email that the emphasis on celebrity affects young writers: they want the instant approval of "being a writer" rather than the lifelong challenge of doing a craft that does not often afford us national approval or recognition of any kind...ever.

Then there are the freshmen fiction writers who want to be experimental even though their knowledge of what constitutes innovation is very small (and of course...this lack of knowledge is hardly a bad thing and I never zap them for it...such knowledge-gathering takes time). I adore innovative, boundary crossing fiction and poetry but to freshmen fiction writers I teach from the point of view (and it's hardly a dogmatic one) of neo-aristotelian storytelling: beginning, middles, and ends; well-developed and motivated ideas, characters, and situations; structural fluency; clean management of the perspective through which the narrative unfolds (rather than switching cases and tenses at will); external sensed-felt-seen-smelled-and-heard action that is not only wholly within a character's head (internal) but vivified descriptively in the tangible felt world; clean prose style that shuns over-ornamentalism outside of the first person; well-considered senses of place, time, and the whole framing of environmental "architecture" or decor (meaning, a sense of mise en scene); a minimization of editorial commentary and an emphasis on letting the narration of action and character's speech lead us to our own meanings...these values certainly don't constitute the best of innovative writing but they give students a BASE on which to work with, through, for, or against.

Because they have not read Tolstoy or early Joyce they are less sensitive to the ways that these great authors rarely reject foundational good storytelling principles even when they innovate.

For me, that is what is so splendid about Professor Dixon's teaching and published work. He is an innovator--especially on the level of narrative voice--marvelously free indirect speech or first person narration in which the character's voice comprises a radically deep immersement into a particular social mileu. Yet Professor Dixon's stories (to say nothing of his novels which play with the idea of self-referentiality) are also structural marvels of development and neo-classical examples of very rich characterizations.

Solutions: some liberal arts English departments still require (blessedly) gate-way survey courses in British and American literature from the seventeenth through the twenty centuries especially to BOTH literature majors and creative writing majors. I would also require at least one course in "classical" literature from Ancient Greece and Rome (in English translation, of course) so that they at least encounter texts like Aristotle's POETICS and RHETORIC. I am extremely committed to a diverse American intellectual tradition but I don't want to lose those kinds of courses because I wouldn't be teaching and writing and thinking with any semblance of critical generosity today if I had not been exposed to those traditions.

So thanks again.

Rodney Welch

Excellent, Dan. The Faulkner analogy is apt; I think of it every time I read him. Is there an MFA program in the country that would permit a "Sound and the Fury" or a "Go Down, Moses" or an "Absalom, Absalom!" to escape? Implausible.

Antoine Wilson

"A good argument could be made that if creative writing programs don't produce better readers , they're not worth much."

Some do. One of the best things about the MFA program I attended were the seminars, in which we talked books with writers who were passionate about literature. The environment was refreshingly free of the lit-crit-theory baggage I'd encountered in other academic settings, and the material was diverse--I first encountered Thomas Bernhard there, for instance, and Kawabata. Although there were times when the focus was on a craft-oriented "how did she do that?" approach, mostly we read for the, um, reading experience.

Steven Augustine

Writers who haven't read 1,000 times the amount of material they generate prior to generating it are responsible for the eerie sensation I've had for quite a while now that we've entered an ahistorical period in much 'new' stuff reads as though Joyce, Faulkner, Firbank, Durrell, Bowles, Gaddis, Calvino, Pynchon, Vonnegut, Brodkey, DeLillo or even Acker never happened. New 'talent' comes along and is trumpeted ecstatically (for a season) for inventing the wheel. It's like having to repeat junior high school as a middle aged man when I read some of this's a crushing irony that I have to reach for 40,50 or even nearly 100 year old books when I want to be *challenged* by something that feels new.

Verify your Comment

Previewing your Comment

This is only a preview. Your comment has not yet been posted.

Your comment could not be posted. Error type:
Your comment has been saved. Comments are moderated and will not appear until approved by the author. Post another comment

The letters and numbers you entered did not match the image. Please try again.

As a final step before posting your comment, enter the letters and numbers you see in the image below. This prevents automated programs from posting comments.

Having trouble reading this image? View an alternate.


Post a comment

Comments are moderated, and will not appear until the author has approved them.

Your Information

(Name and email address are required. Email address will not be displayed with the comment.)

The Art of Disturbance--Available as Pdf and Kindle Ebook
Literary Pragmatism--Available as a Pdf