Friday, January 14, 2011

(Not) Writing to the trend

Advice to genre writers is always "don't write to the trend."  Teenage wizard goes to wizarding school is hot? Don't write it. Teenage vampire romance is hot? Don't write it. At least, don't write it if your heart's not in it 100%. Don't write it just to hop on the bandwagon because (a) your book will suck if you're not in love with it and (b) the bandwagon might be gone by the time your book comes to market.

This advice is readily available to writers seeking instruction in commercial fiction, so why is no one saying it to MFA students?

I've become aware lately that many of the "rules of good writing" spouted off with great authority by students in writing programs are, in fact, trends. Faculty tend not to spout as definitively or level as broad, sweeping statements about the art and artifice of writing. Faculty tend to encourage experimentation. Students, however, encourage sameness in their peers: Trendiness.

In their written critiques of my work, I've had fellow students deliver "reminders" to not experiment. Remember: followed by some supposed rule of narrative. To which my faculty member asked, Why? Why does that have to be? and could not get a satisfactory answer from the students.

Certain pieces of craft like grammar and clarity (sentence level and story level) are tools not trends. But just about everything else -- prose styling, subject matter, and point of view included -- is a trend.

Particularly smacking of trendiness is the desire of today's American MFA student to write like Hemingway -- the idealized version of Hemingway, not the actual one. Trend.

Fiction goes through trends. "Highbrow" fiction goes through trends more slowly -- perhaps because fewer people write or read it, and therefore the impetus to change and innovate isn't as strong because the field isn't as deep -- but it's still changing. Look at fiction from 50 years ago, compared to today, or 100 years ago or 200 years ago: the high minded fiction of any given time period is different. It changes based on trends.  It changes based on what today's readers expect and what they're willing to accept.

I refuse to believe the New Critical notion that there is such a thing as "imperatively "good" writing that is "good" without taking into consideration the context in which it was written. If that was the case then no one would still be studying Shakespeare (his language is wordy and obtuse and the plots are unoriginal [even back then] and melodramatic) or Hawthorn (his novels crawl along like a dull snail in order to get to a few poignant and beautiful passages). Their work is not inherently "good art" yet there are myriad other reasons why we study those writers and why their prose endures, most of which can be appreciated contextually.

Don't believe me?  Try taking a piece that shifts between free verse and rhyming pentameter to your MFA workshop.

Perhaps the slowness of trends in supposedly high minded fiction has as much to do with the depth of the field as it does with the training of writers moving into academia.

Precisely when writing attached itself to the academy is debatable. It depends which self-important entity you choose to believe. Was the first writer's program at Bread Loaf? Harvard? Or was there no creative writing in the academy until Iowa? (all of them claim the distinction) Where it started doesn't really matter. What is certain is that after WWII, writing programs began appearing more and more regularly at colleges until there was a boom of them in the 80s -- a boom which has not yet slacked off. In fact, it might be in a second boom with the 21st century improvements in communication that allow for long distance and low residency MFA programs.

The MFA allows for a single style to be perpetuated and touted over all others. For a trend to be codified into the rules of fiction. For the production of the McPoem, as Donald Hall called it, ten billion served.

It's true that there was no way the peer who wrote to encourage me to Remember the "rule" could have known that I had already considered said "rule" and discarded it in order to serve my purposes. But that doesn't change the fact that it's a prime example of the rules of the trend being touted as the rules of all fiction.

And there have been other examples -- okay one example -- from my experience where my peers said fuck the rule, you should really run with it. 

You could probably show up to an MFA program and learn all the trends, be praised for your ability to recreate fiction that fits the trendy comprehension of the genre, graduate, and never challenge yourself to experiment. And, given the glacial pace of literary fiction, you work wouldn't date itself until the tail end of your life. However, the data shows that it's much more likely that you'll leave your MFA and never write again.

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