The Ditchwalk Book Club is reading and discussing Rust Hills’ seminal work, Writing in General and the Short Story in Particular. Announcement here. Overview here. Tag here.
In commenting on the previous section I noted that I’m personally not interested in belonging to any literary movement or critical school. I have my own literary perspective, certainly, but if I belong to any literary tradition it’s the one that puts human experience and truth ahead of everything else.
My complaint about literary movements and schools is that they are inevitably temporary and almost always fad-driven. This section of Hills’ book unintentionally proves the merit of that perspective in that it replaces two sections that appeared in the original 1977 printing. Those sections were, in order, Fiction and the New Journalism and Real Fiction, as against the New Fiction.
In the late 1970’s New Journalism and New Fiction were hot literary topics. Like all hot literary topics they faded soon afterward, rendering Hills’ own commentary effectively meaningless except for historical value. In reading those sections again I think the current narrative non-fiction movement owes a debt to New Journalism, while flash fiction and other current experimental forms owe a debt to New Fiction. But it also seems, at least to me, that these movements are part of a never-ending effort to make fiction be somehow more than fiction. Whether the hot literary topic is meta-fiction or anti-fiction or hyper-fiction, the aim is always to make plain-old fiction do more, when plain-old fiction does what it does better than any trendy variant ever will.
As Hills wrote in the section on New Journalism:
Imagination is anyway implicit in the very definition of “fiction,” as distinguished from its opposite in the absurd term “nonfiction.” And fiction and nonfiction are, again anyway, both perfectly good things in themselves — there doesn’t seem to be any point in mixing them. The resultant hybrids aren’t a new strain of literary art at all. They’re just intermittently useful, futureless one-timers, as unaesthetic and recalcitrant as mules.
In removing those two sections and replacing them Hills demonstrates the merit of his own words and the futility of embracing fad as craft. If you really feel the need to write from the crest of every literary wave I support you in that pursuit. Not only is it not for me, however, I don’t think it’s a particularly good way to become one with the ocean.
In addressing the American short story “today,” Hills turns away from fad and considers the merits of short fiction and literary fiction in the context of the American publishing industry. Implicit in this overview is Hill’s answer to a question you may have wrestled with yourself. Why should any writer practice a literary form that seems to generate little interest and have no commercial value?
It’s a good question, and Hills deals with it directly:
In America at least, the sad truth probably is that there has never been a true popular readership for the literary short story. Any discussion of whether there’s a “decline” or a “renaissance” has got to be considered in terms of that basic bleak fact.
Then, on the subject of literary fiction and the publishing industry, he adds:
What has happened to American book publishing in the last twenty-five years is amazing, but it is so well known it can be recounted in a series of catch phrases. First came the mergers, so there were fewer “houses.” Then the corporate takeovers. The unknowing, uncaring owners interested only in profits. No longer a family business. No longer a gentleman’s profession. Good editors promoted to be bad executives. The demise of the small bookstore.
I’m willing to bet this excerpt sounds more than a little familiar. Remember, however, that Hills first published those words in the second edition in 1987, which means the twenty-five year period he’s talking about extends back to 1962. Since IK’m writing this post in 2012, that means we’re talking about a full fifty-year period during which these catch-phrase truths have consistently applied.
If the outlook is so perpetually dismal for literary fiction, and by extension short fiction, why should anyone learn the craft behind it? Well, if your goals are purely commercial you probably think the question answer itself. As I’ll show momentarily you’re wrong, but your reasoning is understandable. If your goals are artistic, however, and if the publishing industry has been openly hostile to the kind of stories you want to tell for fifty years, and if there’s no broad-based readership for your work, what’s the point of picking up a figurative pen? And how are you going to survive long enough to learn the craft that will allow you to venture into the marketplace with well-written works that will almost certainly fail to find a publisher or an audience or both?
The popular answer today is that the internet solves all these problems, but it doesn’t. The internet disposed of the gatekeepers who ruthlessly throttled the publishing industry for their own ends, but it has done nothing to establish a broad or even narrowly viable market for literary fiction. The work itself is more readily available, yes, but few if any literary writers are supporting themselves with their work — something Hills notes has also been true for a long time.
The undeniable fact is that there is little if any economically viable literary writing in the wild, even as more and more people seem to be producing artistic work. What gives? How are these people paying their rent?
Hills connects the dots:
Almost unperceived in all these events of the last quarter-century has been the rise of a countervailing force, one that is almost entirely beneficial to the cause of modern literary fiction. I am speaking of the growing role in all the processes of contemporary literature of the colleges and universities of America. If one but stands back a bit and looks, one sees that it is no longer the book publishers and magazines, but rather the colleges and universities, that support the entire structure of the American literary establishment….
This may be so obvious now as to seem axiomatic, but remember: Hills wrote those words twenty-five years ago. If anything the trend has only accelerated since, to the point where fiction writing is now commonly available as an undergraduate or graduate degree. There are so many MFA programs in creative writing, in fact, that the proliferation of those programs has created a viable market for graduates of those programs. Instead of moving to New York to die for your art you can now spend a few hours a week teaching as a means of funding your own keyboard clicks.
What if you really don’t want to write literary fiction? To my mind the answer is still the same at the undergraduate level: find a college you like and spend four or five years writing your brains out as a means of learning craft. Yes, it’s going to cost money, but you don’t have to pay nosebleed rates to become a good writer. What you will get from almost any college is time to write and learn, and a supportive community that will give you useful feedback. That’s the very definition of the workshop experience, which is almost universally recognized as the best way to learn how to write.
Better yet, when you’re done nobody gets to tell you what to do with the craft you’ve learned. If you’re in love with art, find a good MFA program, get your degree, then try to land a teaching position in whatever part of the country you want to live in. (It’s competitive as you might imagine, but what isn’t?) If you’re interested in writing for money, most of what you learned will be portable to other narrative forms. While nobody’s going to put you on staff or sign you to a contract because of an undergrad writing degree, having one is a big plus on any resume because it says you know how to do the work over time.
As regular readers know, I don’t think there’s a better way to learn to tell stories than mastering the craft of short fiction. Lessons learned writing short stories are applicable to every medium large and small. That there is a socially-sanctioned means of acquiring that skill, which can also be turned into a successful career itself, should be celebrated and exploited as much as possible. Between the internet as a social network and distribution pipeline, and robust academic support for fiction writing, it may very well be that the golden age of fiction writing is now.
A final point. If you were determined to be a rock star or a professional athlete you wouldn’t think twice about putting in ten hours of practice for every hour of performance. You’d practice scales or run drills, and even as you groused you’d never think for a moment that what you were doing was a waste of time, or that you should be making money while you were doing it. Yet for some reason a lot of people who aspire to fiction think their first work will bring fame and fortune. Yes, you might get lucky the first time out, but are you going to get lucky twice? Stumbling into success isn’t going to teach you what you need to know to write the next book, or the one after that. And if you’re not determined to make storytelling part of your life for the long haul, why even bother?
Next up: Afterword: Writing in General.
— Mark Barrett
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