Therein Lies the Tale

Once again, I’ve been having a lot of discussions with people about what’s important in writing. As an editor in chief, I’m not the first person to read anything that comes to our journal. First, we have assistant editors who look things over and vote them up or down. Then we have editors who look at things and recommend them to be published. Then I look everything over and give it a yes or no. Well, actually, I give it a yes. I’ve only said “no” once, and I was outvoted.

Sometimes, I look at things that have been submitted and I fall in love with the story they’re telling, but other editors on the staff don’t like them because they’re not technically dazzling or have a shining, crystalline story structure or…honestly, sometimes I have no idea why the other editors hate them.

Then I read a piece in The Atlantic, and it all became clear. The journal for which I am EIC is affiliated with an MFA program, and all of the editors, myself included, are current or former students of that MFA program. We’ve been drilled by Rick Moody about varying our sentence structure. We’ve been inspired by Susan Orlean to carefully balance fact and judgement. We’ve been told by everyone who’s ever written anything to “find our voice.” (I would have made that a hotlink, but when I googled  “find your voice,” I got 1.1 billion results. Billion. With a B.)

So what do we do with those stories that are less than technically perfect, but where the writer is telling us something we haven’t heard before? Some experience they’ve had that is so surprising, so inspiring, so thought-provoking, that you find yourself thinking about it and referring to it long after you’ve finished reading it? I would like to think that our egos as writers are enough in check to be generous to that writer. As generous as the New Yorker editor obviously was to that writing student, but I have to be honest.

Every one of us is human. We are all, at various times, jealous, petty, nitpicky, prejudiced, or fearful, and we don’t always have control over those emotions any more than we have control over when our bosses are going to put a whole bunch of work on our desks and say “this has to be done by the end of the day.”

I finished reading David Foster Wallace’s Infinite Jest this past week, and it took me a couple of days to distill my thoughts and feelings about it. In the end, I ended up writing a 13-page annotation, complete with subsidized time section headings and footnotes. I mentioned on Facebook that I had finished it, but that I didn’t know anyone else who had read it so I had no one to talk about it with.

What followed was a thread in which those of my friends who had read it weighed in briefly, and those who hadn’t gave me their reasons for not having read it, and the adjective that I heard the most often was “pretentious.” I wasn’t sure what that meant, vis-a-vis Infinite Jest, because it’s not the story of how rich people know more, are better looking and deserve more than everyone else. Nor is it a mundane story told using unnecessarily large words. It does demand a certain amount of attention, but so does Anna Karenina, an even longer book that I’ve never heard called pretentious, although it does contain a lot about the privilege of rich people and unnecessarily large words.

At heart, Infinite Jest is about the gross and frightening appetites of human beings. For love, for approval, for honor, for money, for an undefinable happiness that they cannot construct for themselves, but must purchase new each day in a different form, while not throwing out yesterday’s happiness. I don’t suppose that’s a new story, but it’s told in a way that is off-putting to a lot of people, and (as I’ve learned in the biography of DFW that I’m currently reading) Wallace had a great deal of trouble during his lifetime getting people to recognize the worth of his writing.

Maybe that’s it. The more uncomfortable a subject makes people, the more they’re going to look for something else about the story that bothers them. The voice doesn’t sound “genuine,” the sentence structure doesn’t vary, there are too many or not enough commas, they don’t know the difference between “there” and “their.” It keeps them from having to say “I don’t understand or relate to this material,” or “this portrays people like myself in an unflattering light,” or “I disagree with this person’s worldview.”

6 responses

  1. Being a reader is the hardest thing I’ve ever done, and our MFA program, though it does have the elements you described above–is blessedly different from a LOT of other MFA programs out there because both the student body as a whole and the faculty understand that great writing is often times rough & not every writer is concerned with the minutiae of craft as they are with telling a compelling story. There is nothing sadder to me than reading a piece that is structurally sound, tight, and focused, and in being so meticulously written, it has been sanitized of even the faintest whiff of emotional resonance and the unique self of the writer is hidden beneath well-built layers of imagery, varied sentences, and creative techniques that obliterated the very thing the writer was trying to do when they sat down: reach out to me as their reader, and connect to me through their piece.

    On the DFW side of things, have you encountered the Bret Easton Ellis Twitter rants about him? Any author that can engender that much spite and vitriol in another author when he’s dead & buried (and thus, no longer a “threat,”) clearly had & has something to contribute to the conversation of how writers can & should approach their craft–and like you, I find that sometimes the most difficult books to read (for me, House of Leaves springs to mind immediately) are written off as “pretentious” out of either jealousy (why didn’t I think of that? I hate you) fear (I don’t understand how you thought of that, so I hate you) or ignorance (I don’t really care about what you thought of, it has no bearing on my life, so therefore it shouldn’t have bearing on anyone else’s either, PS I hate you.)

    • Well, I’ve read DFW and BEE, and I can say this with complete conviction. DFW has a mind that works on levels that BEE’s does not. It never has (I first read BEE in college and though he was meh) and he has failed to evolve. BEE achieved commercial success (which DFW absolutely longed for) but because he achieved it early, he stopped trying to grow and change. So all his whinging just sounds like sour grapes.

  2. As I mentioned, IJ knocked the wind out of me. I read it in its entirety, footnotes and all, and was nearly overwhelmed by its brilliance. When I read DFW’s bio, I physically ached for him. Pretentiousness never crossed my mind. It is an ENDEVOUR (is that how you spell it?) Perhaps those quick to criticize just don’t have it in them. I appreciate your comments and analysis, knowing now (from the bio) how he agonized over every sentence, you can’t help but ache for him. Thanks for sharing your wisdom.

    • I agree – I felt most horrible for him because of all the struggles he went through with his professors who blamed him for not writing in the way they expected. But it’s the burden of greatness.

  3. See, I like both. But I also enjoy eating dinner, and I enjoy eating Twinkies too, even though I know that one’s no substitute for the other.

    • Maybe if BEE could just be okay with being Twinkies, that would be fine. I just find his huffing and puffing petulant and childish. But if DFW is dinner, he’s like a dinner of 10 pounds of organic tofu braised and topped with a reduction of coltsfoot and dressed with arugula and summer savory served on a bed of wild rice with pureed baby carrots. Sure it’s nutritious, but a bit much for a lot of folks. And even for those people who think he’s great, you can’t have that for every meal.

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