On Modern Writing
In Which He Asks the Musical Question: If the Author is Dead, is This Just Necrophilia?

by Barthel


One afternoon while walking on the lawn behind the security office, I saw a piece of paper lying on the grass. While it had not rained, the paper was lightly soaked, probably from dew, and the letters showed themselves through the back, blurry and smudged. For a moment I thought it was a page of runes, and then I picked it up.

There were three forms of writing on the page. First was the ink, black and teared-up; second, in pencil, were a teacher's comments; and third was a scrawled message from someone who had found the piece of paper, as I had.

The ink spelled out a poem. The poem compared the experiences of Jews to those of Argentineans. The second stanza reads: white chubby with freckles and pretty babyboy/whose not a baby with short brown hair/combed by the picture lady messy/now, where's your yamakah now?

In pencil, the teacher wrote his comments. "It's powerful, but it doesn't/make itself accessible in/a reasonably way, and its/intensely private/manner is, I think/a shortcoming."

Over all this, someone has scrawled, in black pen: "THIS POEM/REALLY SUCKS/WHY ARE YOU/WASTiNg $30,000/Year?"

Three levels of criticism, then. It is the third, of course, that initially causes me annoyance. A waste: as if the only point of 9 months at Oberlin was to write one poem for one assignment, a poem that would serve as the expression of all you've learned? That's your transcript's job. Classes are for finding out what you're good at, assignments are for trying out new ways of thinking, and just because you write one mediocre poem doesn't mean you shouldn't be at Oberlin, or shouldn't be writing.

I assume you presume I am out to condemn the scrawler as a philistine, or a science major. Actually, I am convinced that the person who saw fit to graffiti this random poem is, in fact, a writer himself. But why, you might ask, would a writer choose to write such base and unconstructive criticism on a poem by someone he does not know without identifying himself? To which I can only say: duh.

Writers are cowards. Writers do not want to argue about things or pass judgment for fear they might offend someone. But when there's no consequence for their action, watch out for those poison pens!

There is a siege mentality in the writing world. Writing no longer matters, we are told; the audience for fiction and poetry is dying. We writers have then concluded that this means we need to protect our own--that criticism shows weakness, and weakness means death. We cannot speak ill of our own lest we be branded a genre traitor. Thus: we cannot argue about writing.

In a certain sense, I can see the validity of this. Writing is, after all, an intensely personal affair, but the consensus seems to be that “maturation” as a writer involves disabusing oneself of this notion. We should, of course, be sensitive to the author's feelings, but we should also not be afraid to make larger, more general points about what writing should and shouldn't do—as I am here.

Have we become like the teenage poetess in Huckleberry Finn, Emmeline Grangerford, so addicted to our own notions about the grandeur of sorrow and tragedy and depression of “ordinary people” that we write things like
And did young Stephen sicken, And did young Stephen die? And did the sad hearts thicken, And did the mourners cry?
No; such was not the fate of Young Stephen Dowling Bots; Though sad hearts round him thickened, 'Twas not from sickness' shots.
No whooping-cough did rack his frame, Nor measles drear with spots; Not these impaired the sacred name Of Stephen Dowling Bots.
Despised love struck not with woe That head of curly knots, Nor stomach troubles laid him low, Young Stephen Dowling Bots."

Are we so susceptible to criticism that we could suffer her same fate? Huck says: "The under- taker never got in ahead of Emmeline but once, and then she hung fire on a rhyme for the dead person's name, which was Whistler. She warn't ever the same after that; she never complained, but she kinder pined away and did not live long."

Why do writers think it is better to continue praising what has already been done rather than risk innovation? Do they think that the way to save writing from obscurity is to not change anything? One of the major functions of art is to serve as a testing ground for new ideas, to examine and argue about viewpoints before they are absorbed into the mainstream.

Of course there is debate about what writing should do, but this exists mainly on the level of Is this offensive? While this is certainly something that should be considered, when this is the only standard by which art is judged, we get what we currently have: writers concerned only with offending no one or offending everyone. We have the safe and we have the forbidden. We rarely have the good.

People seem to want experience or “a point” in writing, never subtlety. But if I was trying to make a point, I'd write an essay (which, regrettably, many Oberlin students—including me, right here!—do). A fiction piece of mine was once rejected from a certain literary magazine on campus with the explanation, “Well, we thought it was really good writing, but we didn't know what it was about.”

Why not? Couldn't you be bothered to interpret it? Many people think it's “disrespectful” to go beyond what the author seems to intend, but as an author, let me say: go right ahead!

There is a disturbing trend of anti-intellectualism prominent in some areas of my Oberlin experience (though certainly not all; mainly just writing/English (at times) and politics. Reliable sources report that there are vibrant forums for discussion elsewhere on campus). There are those who believe that if thinking is removed from an enterprise, this makes it better. Writing, reading, politics—especially politics!—all of these are better when “intuitive.” Groups are perfectly willing to state their own greivances, but not to discuss them with other groups. I've actually heard complaints about people passionately discussing ideas—because they're pretentious. God forbid!

Why would you come to college and not want to talk about ideas? This is the real waste of $30,000 a year. Listen up, kids: you aren't here to do things. You come to college to think, and learn, and get ready for all that time afterwards when have to do things. If you don't want to think, leave anytime, and get on with your life. I'd appreciate the smaller discussion groups.

Arguing is good. Discussion is good. I have opinions, but some of them are wrong, and I'd like to talk about them with people and figure out if they're right. Can I? No. That would be pretentious. Argue with me! I want you to! Don't ignore me, don't get embarrassed, and don't get offended. I promise not to, either. We'll be courteous, but we should at least say what we mean. More importantly, let's argue about writing. Let's talk about it broadly, and not be afraid to generalize.

To be more specific: writers are too tied to the workshop system. It's a wonderful format, and an incredibly effective way to dissect works when the author is present, when an assumption of experimentation is being made (i.e., the participants should not “be too hard” on a work), and when the person's feelings are at stake. When you are talking about Johnny Obie's “Autumn Leaves and my Latvian Heritage” you don't want to say “this is crap and indicative of a larger horrible trend” because that would be incredibly callous and unnecessary. The workshop system is truly wonderful, versatile and neutral, and allows for the kind of experimentation I'd like to see.

But it can also be limiting, because if we do want to talk about larger issues that have been brought up by a story, we feel like we can't, because that would be offensive to the writer, who is still in the room, after all. It doesn't have to be, though, and it can and must be done. Find another, published example of the problem and discuss it that way. Or just say, "This is interesting, but let's talk about the general ideas it's addressing, separate from the work itself."

The philosophy of the workshop, and a good one, is that we should not ask whether or not the work is good, but whether or not it works on its own terms. But a time must come when we ask whether or not those terms were worthy ones.

The problem, in no small part, derives from the now-persistent division between English departments and Creative Writing departments. The former asks "what does this writing mean?" and the latter asks "does this writing work?" No one asks "What should we be writing? How should we be writing?" Those two questions are crucial, and it is time for them to become part of every writer's consciousness.

Rhoda Unger writes: "Whose story should be told? This problem has been ignored by psychologists who tell stories about people who exemplify a point the narrator wishes to make. Such story telling leaves the reader at the mercy of the selection criteria (often unspecified and even unrecognized) of the narrator." Writers, then, are not unlike bad psychologists. They try and string together seemingly real events from a very limited set of experiences (their own being privileged) to make a point that could have been made otherwise. We are afraid to include stories that contradict our worldview, and we do not ask "Whose story should be told?" because the answer has been given to us: your own, of course! Whose else could you tell without being offensive? Autobiography is its own explanation, but for anything without an obvious moral, it's "Well, we didn't know what it was about."

Writing is unlike science in its irrationality (something writers seem to forget) but like science in that it is essentially experimentation. My problem is not that writing is bad (nothing wrong with that) but simply boring. I welcome bad writing if it is genuinely trying to conceive of something new.

Whose stories should be told? Those that haven't been told before. Previously, this might have meant African-Americans, or women, or gay men. But now it means, quite clearly, those whose experiences do not qualify as "real"—those whose experiences do not fit into the narrative structure or "selection criteria" of modern literary fiction.

We are writers; we should not be cowards. We should be the people who refuse to buckle under, who refuse to stop trying new things. But we should also not be afraid to say, "This is not the kind of thing we should be writing. This is boring." We should think, because thinking is good. And we should, above all, write—write and write and write, and leave the writing where others can see it, and don't worry too much if some bitter poet criticizes your microeconomic choices. If we have a "point," we should tell a different story within our expected one, and see what happens. If we write something and see it has been done before, we should gain what we can from that and move on. We should not be addicted to sorrow, and we should not believe in the inviolability of our selves. Remember that we are writers because we have imaginations, not because there is something in our individuality that makes us interesting. It is in our perceptions of and by others that we may have a real effect. You are a writer, and you are boring. Sate rage with joy, sorry with ecstacy, despair with hope; assist the banal in its inevitable transformation to the unfamiliar. Make your writing interesting, and then you've done all you can do—and, more importantly, exactly what you should do.


Back