How do your students respond to the close reading that you do? At one point in your book you mention that in some of your classes you’ve only gotten through two pages in a two-hour class because you’ve been going over it so closely.
You’d think it would be the most tedious thing that ever happened. You would really imagine that this would be the most boring class you’ve ever taken in your entire life. But in fact, it’s surprisingly lively because students kind of “get it” right away. When you’re doing a John Cheever story and looking at the brilliance of each word choice and how much every sentence is telling you without telling you and—that dreadful word—“unpacking” a sentence for what it communicates, there’s something kind of exhilarating about it and energizing. Four or five weeks into every semester I find myself thinking—Oh my god they’re so smart, I had no idea they were all such geniuses—because it’s something that you just get how to do. It’s a great thing to see happen in students, undergraduates too. It’s equally, if not more exhilarating, to teach undergraduates because in most cases they haven’t been taught to read that way, and it’s thrilling for them. I’d be equally happy teaching a class in an old age home, because it’s not as if it’s some special arcane thing that only someone who wants to write can do. In fact, anyone who loves to read might be incredibly relieved to be told, “Look, pay attention to the language. You don’t have to have this grand opinion and you don’t have to read this with a view to figuring out how the writer screwed up in some way.” It’s just about the pleasure of language.
I had to laugh as I was reading the many workshop classroom scenes in your novel Blue Angel. It seemed the perfect match to looking at Reading Like a Writer.
Well, you know that’s the writing class from hell. It’s the worst-case scenario. Some of those students were based on students I had—but from over many years. I just basically took the most difficult students I’d ever had and put them all in the same class, the most personality disordered, the most dysfunctional.
The writing workshop and the way it’s structured, is something that’s pretty easy to poke fun at. When Swenson, the writing teacher in Blue Angel, is trying to stop someone from ripping somebody’s heart out and saying, “No we’re going to say something nice first—”
I can’t remember if I come right out and say it in the novel, but there’s something essentially sadistic about the whole process. I mean, to sit there and have the love of your life—your work—something that close to your heart and soul, just ripped apart by strangers…
And not to be able to say anything.
Yes—and not be able to say anything. Who thought that up? It’s so cruel. And everybody essentially knows it’s so cruel, but that’s one of the many things you’re not allowed to say. This whole language of euphemism has sprung up around the inability to be honest. You can’t say, “This just bored the hell out of me.” So instead you say, desperately, “I think you should show instead of tell.” Where’d that come from? I mean, tell that to Jane Austen!
There is this common vocabulary that comes out of the MFA program – the “show don’t tell.”
“Whose story is this?”
“What’s the occasion?”
“What’s at stake here for the characters?”
If you go into an MFA program you’re going to come out with this vocabulary, even if you don’t necessarily become a better writer.
Well, yeah, because the fact is that when someone says, “What’s at stake here?” what they may mean is, “Why would anyone waste their time writing this crap?”, but no one’s going to say that, thank God. Occasionally I’ve taught at writers’ conferences or in programs where two writers teach together. Sometimes it’s fantastic. I’ve taught with Stuart Dybeck, for example, and Diane Johnson, and I’ve thought, Gee, I would pay to be in this workshop because hearing what this person has to say about writing is so fascinating and enlightening. But other times I’ve co-taught with people who just mouth all the platitudes of the workshop. That’s a very difficult position because you’re sitting there listening to your colleague say, “Whose story is this?” and you’re trying not to say, “Well whose story is The Brothers Karamazov?”
That’s exactly what you do in Chapter 10, your chapter on Chekhov. I read this Chekhov chapter and I thought, Oh this is so brave. You go to the moments when your knee-jerk reaction would be to give these rules to a student—a person can’t commit suicide for no good reason or you can’t just switch point of view on a whim—and you find a story by Chekhov that disproves them.
Rules that are out of nowhere, that just have nothing to do with anything.
As a teacher, how do you run a workshop? Do you have techniques for saving yourself from those knee-jerk reactions?
I do. Instead of saying something like, “I think we should know more about what his mother was like,” I try to come up with some examples from literature that that might be helpful for the writer to look at. And there are certain things that I feel the compulsion to point out every so often about reading and writing. For example, I often hear myself telling the class, “You know we’re not the character’s therapists. And we shouldn’t function as sort of a group therapy session for the characters in the story; they’re characters in a story.”
That speaks to another of these writing program truisms that you take issue with in the final chapter: that the reader has to sympathize with the characters.
Yeah, sympathy for the characters is not a requirement.
Presumably, for a reader to make it through an entire novel, they have to care about the character—but not have to like them?
I don’t know. I mean, I don’t know what you have to do. Again, Beckett is an example I always come up with because do you care about Molloy? I don’t know that you do. Maybe in the sense that everything he says is incredibly interesting and weird and amusing and strange. But that’s not the same as wanting to go for a drink with him. You end up admiring the incredible gift Beckett has for using language to express a unique and very particular and perceptive and strange idea about the world. But that’s not the same as caring about Molloy.
At one point in the book you say, “I discovered how reading a masterpiece can make you want to write one.” You’ve given countless examples in the book of places where there’s inspired word choice, brilliant sentences, telling literary gestures and dialogue. I wonder if you could offer up an example of a masterpiece that really made you want to write one.
The first time I read One Hundred Years of Solitude. Not that I could ever imagine writing anything that extraordinary myself. But it’s hard to read that without becoming just infected by the joy of storytelling. I mean, seeing what it’s like to create an entire world and have things come back around and characters appear and disappear and what you can do on the page. That was a real revelation for me.
Or reading Anna Karenina, in which on practically every page there’s something that you’ve noticed about character and the world or that you’ve seen someone do, and that you never thought anyone else had ever noticed before. And here’s this Russian nutcase who’s been dead all these years capturing it all perfectly.
You dropped out of a PhD program and essentially left the life of the academic for the life of a novelist/short-story-writer/journalist.
I’ve never looked back.
What made you choose the life of the writer over the life of the academic?
I don’t really feel that I had a choice. Graduate school was driving me quite literally insane. I wanted a different approach to the work. I just felt that the passion I felt as a reader was not being reflected by my professors and by my future colleagues. I don’t know what they were doing, but it wasn’t what I was doing. And I don’t know how they were reading, but it wasn’t the way I was reading. When I look at the list of papers presented at an MLA convention, I still get that same feeling of What are these people talking about? It was extremely alienating, because in theory we were all talking about the same (as they would say) “texts,” but I really, literally could not understand. I had never thought of myself as the stupidest person in the room, but suddenly that’s what I had become. Nothing anyone was saying made any particular sense to me. Which isn’t to say that I didn’t have great teachers. I did. The book is dedicated to three of them, one of whom was my teacher both in college and graduate school. But they certainly weren’t in the majority.
As a teacher, journalist, and writer, you’ve had your thumb on the pulse for some time now. Have you been struck by any recent trends in the literary world?
I will say one thing. For one reason or another, I get sent a lot of new books. I don’t know what they’re hoping—reviews or blurbs I guess. So I see a lot of what’s being published. And plenty of it is pretty dull. But quite a bit of it is actually really interesting. Every so often you hear these gloomy predictions about the death of the novel or the death of fiction and the end of literary culture, blah, blah, blah. But, you know, my friend the novelist Richard Price said the novel the will be around at our funeral. And I think he’s right; it’s alive and well.
What are you reading these days?
Because I’m reviewing so much I often tend to read books on assignment more than for sheer pleasure, but let me look at my desk and see what’s on it. Okay I’ll just tell you what’s on my desk. The Collected Works of Jane Bowles. A collection of essays by Janet Malcolm. The new book by Daniel Mendelson which I just reviewed called The Lost, about a search for his relatives lost in the holocaust. Huckleberry Finn. A book called Stuart: A Life Backwards, by Alexander Masters, which is a strange and terrific biography of a homeless person. That’s what’s on my desk. It’s a range. But one of the reasons I’m glad I wrote this book and I’m glad there’s the bibliography at the end is that whenever anyone asks you for a book recommendation or what you’re reading, everything just flies out of your mind; you just can’t think of a single book you’ve ever read.
You know that experience. So now at least I have this list and I can say, “Go look at the list. Don’t ask me. Read the list!”