Thursday, February 2, 2012

MFA Greensboro Faculty Holly Goddard Jones Talks about Literary Fraternity

Literary Fraternity

Holly Goddard Jones In my first semester of graduate school, I took a class called Forms of Fiction with the man who would eventually become my thesis director, Lee K. Abbott. Lee’s a brilliant teacher—I’ve been thinking about that fact recently, because he’s in his last year of teaching before retirement—and I steal from him for my own classes all the time. This past week I used a reading he assigned me in that class eight years ago: the introduction to an anthology of fiction, The Secret Life of Our Times, published in Esquire back in 1973, when Gordon Lish was editor. This intro, written by Tom Wolfe, is a pretty entertaining document, and I feel moved to share a couple of quotes from it:

“The rules of the game in modern fiction changed decisively during the 1960s. In that brief interval the American short story moved from the vulgar stage to the poetic stage, in terms of cultural evolution, and the abruptness of the transition all but cost it its life….The upshot has been a type of short story that exhibits all the daring—and all the difficulties—of formalism. By the very nature of his task, the formalist is no longer writing for a vague ‘public.’ He is not out to entertain or arrest attention in the usual way. He is writing for a fraternity not merely of other writers but also of those readers who are sophisticated enough to appreciate form, technique, and the state of the art, who are able to read new work against the background of what has already been tried” (xx–xxii).

Stephen King talked about this same issue more recently in the introduction he wrote to Best American Short Stories 2007. You can read the intro in its entirety here if you missed the first time around, but he basically discusses the problem of writers writing for other writers, and reading not for the thrill of a story but for the sake of sizing up the marketplace, figuring out what sells. King calls it “copping-a-feel reading.”

You know, I’d like to write for a “vague ‘public’” rather than a fraternity, and I’d like to “entertain or arrest attention in the usual way.” The simple response to that is, of course, “Well, do it,” and I’ve tried. I tried it with my story collection, which seemed for the most part to only reach other writers, aspiring writers, and academics, and I guess I should just be happy that the fraternity ensures even that much of an audience. I’ve tried it again with my first novel, and maybe it stands a better chance, since (for now) general readers will still pick up a novel for entertainment’s sake. But who knows?

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