Rust Hills comes at fiction-writing from a decidedly literary perspective. What does that mean? Well, this:
I’ve got a shelf of how-to-write books, and they all seem to me pretty much dreadful, especially the ones about the short story.
Then I’ve got another shelf of books, some of them seem to me great. These are college textbook anthologies of short stories, with analyses of the stories that sometimes get quite technical.
I know what you’re thinking. You’re thinking what you really want is the how-to-write books, because you want to learn how to write, not how to read. Believe me, I understand: I’ve been there, and I”m no great fan of critical analysis. But Hills is going to throw you a curve in a minute and I don’t want you to miss it.
Measures of Success
From the above quotes you might also infer that Hills takes sides in the age-old debate about whether storytelling can be taught at all. He does, siding with the MFA types who insist that writing talent is innate, and against the writing magazines and storytelling gurus who insist that anyone can learn to write fiction. (As an aside it’s worth noting that both sides are protecting turf and looking to get paid.)
My answer — and I think the answer to this issue — is that both sides are right. Almost anyone can learn the basics of storytelling, and, with sufficient practice and good feedback, tell an engaging tale. Writing is not rocket science. I can think of two current bestselling authors whose writing is, at best, workmanlike, yet they’ve managed to sell millions of copies. Clearly this is success by almost any measure, except perhaps artistic merit. But just because a story isn’t rarefied art that doesn’t mean it failed to do what the author intended.
By the same token, I think almost everyone would agree that what makes some writers special or unique in an artistic or critical sense cannot be taught. Writers with such gifts may never see commercial success or popular acclaim, but they’re the kind of writers who, as Hills suggests, end up in anthologies of the best short fiction of a particular age. No small accomplishment in itself.
Michael vs. Magic
Few people will accept an intellectual limit being placed on them, though they would quite easily accept a physical cap on their ability to perform. Declaring that not everyone has the capacity to write critically acclaimed short fiction seems elitist and condescending. Yet few would balk at being told they don’t have the potential to play professional basketball no matter how hard they practice or how much they’re willing to sacrifice.
Not only do such differences apply to intellectual pursuits (we can’t all be Einstein or Eliot), but they apply among professional basketball players. Some players possess rare physical gifts, while others possess an intellectual capacity for the game that can’t be passed on through repetition or coaching.
There’s no doubt that Michael Jordan was a great basketball player, primarily as a result of his physical abilities and relentless desire to win. Nothing Jordan ever did was fundamentally different from anyone else: he drove to the basket, scored, dunked, played defense, but did so at a physical level well beyond almost everyone who ever played the game.
Contrast this physical dominance with a player like Magic Johnson, and the difference should be clear. Of all the basketball players I ever watched, Magic Johnson was the only player who did things on the court that I couldn’t conceive of in my own mind, and he did those things routinely. Watching him play was like watching a literal sorcerer, yet despite his success and all of the footage available for study, nobody has ever been able to consistently duplicate what he routinely did while competing at the highest level.
That’s artistry. It’s stuff that can’t be taught in basketball, and arguing about whether similar intangibles exist in the literary world is, to me, a complete waste of time. If you want to write (or play basketball), then your personal goal should be maximizing whatever gifts you have through hard work and dedication. If you have all the talent in the world and never strike a key or pick up a pen then you’re going to fail as a writer. If you have minimal gifts — if it’s all hard, all the time — but you work your butt off, then sooner or later you’re going to tell a story that affects readers in exactly the way you intended.
Craft as Foundation
Rust Hills might prefer literary fiction — he might even think that’s what you should write — but that doesn’t mean he’s giving anyone a free pass. What Hills cares about most is not your authorial gifts or your talent or your literary pedigree, but how you put your stories together. Are you effective or ineffective with the choices you make? Are you consciously controlling your fiction so that it achieves the intended effect or not?
That’s the curve I was telling you about. For all his interest in literary works, Hills’ dislike of how-to-write books is not that they are focused on craft, it’s that they teach bad craft.
…if you want to know how short stories work, what the particular dynamics of short fiction are, then I think maybe my book can help you.
Note the emphasis (italics mine): “…how short stories work….” Fiction, like the chair you’re sitting in, is constructed. It’s built, always, no matter how many artistic gifts come into play along the way. Writing literary fiction may be Hills’ goal but it doesn’t have to be your own. What you should want, no matter what you write, is what Hills wants: well-constructed stories that fully express the author’s intent.
Having said all that, if you’re stuck grousing about literary class warfare instead of improving your work, consider this. Whatever kind of writing you want to do, whatever you have to say, whatever gifts you have, you will always profit more — critically and financially — by improving your craft.
It doesn’t matter if you’re an MFA prince or a mass-market princess: your storytelling skills will be improved by Rust Hills’ book, and that improvement will be applicable to everything you write. If you’re able to get past labels and see fiction for what it really is — a mechanism little different from your car or house — then you will profit even more.
Next up: The Short Story, as against the Novel and the Sketch.
— Mark Barrett