There's a recent Huffington Post article by Anis Shivani on the most overrated contemporary American writers. Such an article, of course, is almost compulsory to look at in the way a burning wreck on the side of a highway is. See what favorite writers of yours gets skewered. Shivani’s list includes Jhumpa Lahiri, Billy Collins, Junot Diaz, and a dozen others. Still, one can't help but get swept up in someone's passionate conviction on something.
While Shivani makes it seem the authors are hoodwinking the public, the thing to remember is that the writers he mentions don’t overrate themselves. As one commenter offered, “So writers get full blame for who chooses to read them and for their popularity level, or should readers also be talked about as if they had committed genocide just because they read books you don't like?”
What I love about the article is that it’s had people talking and writing and considering what a good book is. As of this writing, there have been 1,642 comments left after the posting, taking up 43 pages of small type. I particularly like the exploration of truth and entertainment. It’s the intersection at which I’m working hard as a writer—to entertain as well as provoke. I happen to have a more hopeful outlook on life than Chuck Palahniuk, but we run in the same territory. Michael Chabon works there too, and Chabon has said often, “I read for entertainment, and I write to entertain. Period.”
Chabon, who won a Pulitzer for The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay, wrote in a Los Angeles Times essay that, “Entertainment has come to mean junk. But its definition also should include everything pleasurable that arises from an encounter with literature. Entertainment has a bad name. Serious people learn to mistrust and even to revile it. The word wears spandex, pasties, a leisure suit studded with blinking lights…. Entertainment trades in cliché and product placement. It engages regions of the brain far from the centers of discernment, critical thinking, ontological speculation.”
Still, he says, “But maybe these intelligent and serious people, my faithful straw men, are wrong. Maybe the reason for the junkiness of so much of what pretends to entertain us is that we have accepted — indeed, we have helped to articulate — such a narrow, debased concept of entertainment.”
Because I also teach creative writing and earned an MFA from a writing program, how to write and what to teach has been on my mind often. Shivani castigates MFA writing programs in a way that’s easy to dismiss, yet I can empathize with the respondent who wrote:
“The number one failing of MFA fiction programs is that they fail to teach, or even acknowledge, plot. Anyone can write. Seriously. Just walk into Borders. But few writers can hang a story on a great plot. A plot is a study in causality. Yet this most fundamental of rhetorical devices is pooh-poohed by MFA programs. Plot smacks of commercialism, a betrayal of that inner voice struggling to find the light. No. MFA fiction programs are not interested in story-telling in its purest, plot-driven sense. They are about group therapy, about finding your inner voice—and fooling yourself into believing the world really cares about your Lovely Bones or Snow Falling on Cedars. Believe me, I know. I attended an MFA program. I still bear the scars. Thank you Mr. Shivani.”
While I happen to adore Alice Sebold’s The Lovely Bones, and I loved USC’s Master of Professional Writing program for giving me three years to spend thinking, reading, and writing, I have to agree with the writer’s bigger point about plot. I learned plot outside of the program. It’s as if plot equals entertainment equals everything negative about being entertained, and so voice and character are often stressed over plot in writing programs.
I first approached plot as “it’s what interesting people do.” If you create interesting characters, you’ll have plot. However, is it a grabbing and entertaining plot, one with great pacing? Is it the best you can do?
I made my graduate students read Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone to get a glimpse of why people might stand in line for a day when J.K. Rowling had a new book out. Wouldn’t you want people to stand in line for your book? Why were adults reading it? What need did it satisfy?
I’ve discovered, moving from short story writing to novel writing, that it’s not efficient to create plot on the spur of the moment, going where inspiration or whimsy dictates. I didn’t want to have to throw out three hundred pages because I took a wrong turn.
There’s also a lot of creativity that can go into outlining. I find I still have plenty of surprise even when working with an outline. However, there are many approaches to writing a novel, and my method isn’t the only one. If you’re a writer, ask yourself: do you need to work on plot?
I’ve had the pleasure of having mystery author Lynn Hightower (Fortunes of the Dead) as an editor. My comic novel is getting more funny thanks to her insistence on creating a scene plan in my rewrites. She lives in Kentucky and teaches in UCLA Extension’s Writers Program, where I also teach. She happened to write me recently when I brought up this subject, and she said more eloquently than I:
"Good writing means being humble enough to know that no matter how talented you are, and no matter how fine your literary riffs can be, you owe the reader Once Upon a Time. You are not writing for your mother who will read your story and magnet it on the fridge no matter how good or bad. You are writing for people who got fired from their job, whose husband just came home in a bad mood, who have bills to pay and mouthy teenagers, and puppies who just ate a shoe. They want to escape from their world and go to a place in their head that you create. This is enormous trust on their part. This is enormous indulgence--they are sitting down and reading your story, and you better darn well make it worth their while.”
What authors do you love or hate? What makes you want to read a book?
Causes Christopher Meeks Supports
Associated Writing Programs