Literary Cow Pies

My quest for ideas about how to write well is ongoing. By “write well” I mean, at the moment, how to write sentences and paragraphs that are strong — that communicate. That are, not to put too fine a point on it, beautiful, or at least striking to read and insightful with respect to their subject matter. Sentences that, when you read them, you find yourself thinking, “I wish I had written that.”

In the course of my quest, I made the mistake of buying the Kindle edition of Narrative Design by Madison Smartt Bell. The middle name should, I think, have served as a warning, but I failed to heed it.

I did, to be fair, learn a couple of good things from Bell’s opening section. He dissects the problems with fiction-writing workshops, and points out that until the mid-20th century there was no such thing as a writing workshop. Writers studied the work of their predecessors, and then they wrote. This is a valuable tip.

The bulk of Narrative Design, sadly, is a collection of short stories, each of them annotated in great detail by Bell. This is a lovely pedagogical approach. Unfortunately, the stories stink. As soon as I finish writing this, I’m going to ask for my money back.

Okay, I only read the first three stories. After the first two I was reeling, but tonight I forced myself to try again. At this point, I’m done.

I don’t mean they stink in any simple way. They stink in the refined way that only self-conscious “modern literature” can stink. It’s sort of a sewage omelette effect.

Bell is enthusiastic about these stories. He admires them. He feels they’re close to perfect. I’m not sure even the Ivory Tower effect will do to explain his dreadful lack of judgment. I’d like to think the book is satire, but it’s much too serious and weighty. No, he means every word.

In “Depth Charge,” by Craig Bernardini, a young man named Alex celebrates his 21st birthday by getting very drunk in a bar on a Monday night — a bar that he has been frequenting for the past three years. At closing time, Alex climbs into his car and drives it through a barrier into Baltimore harbor in a sort of nihilistic act of bravado. It’s not unlike Russian roulette (which Bernardini thoughtfully mentions as the young man is talking with the bartender) except that Alex has planned how he will escape from the car as it sinks beneath the waves. Being very drunk, he almost doesn’t make it, but then he does.

The escape from drowning is presented by Bell as Alex’s way of coming alive. Bell uses the phrase “freed himself to live life fully” and the word “revivifying.” But really, what we have here is a story about a 21-year-old alcoholic whose life is so pathetically meaningless that he’s trying to kill himself. Next time, he’ll probably succeed. Suicide is one of the ways alcoholics die.

The only other character in the story, Gavin the bartender, lets Alex drive away from the bar while very drunk. I don’t know what the law is in Baltimore, but my guess is, Gavin has committed a crime in letting Alex get behind the wheel. So there you have it — a suicidal alcoholic and a criminally negligent bartender. And we don’t find out what Alex is intending to do until the very end of the story. Most of the story is just Alex and Gavin shooting the breeze in a deserted bar on a Monday night. Inspiring, yes?

I was guessing that Bernardini was an undergraduate participant in a writing workshop — but no, he has a Ph.D. and teaches creative writing. I do hope nobody signs up for any of his classes.

Next up, Bell gives us “A Wife of Nashville” by Peter Taylor. This story is less painful to read than Bernardini’s depressing mess. Its chief difficulty is that it goes on at great length without ever showing a glimmer of a plot. The story takes place between the 1920s and the 1940s. The wife in the title, Helen Ruth Lovell, has a husband, three sons, and a succession of colored cook/housekeepers. As the story goes on, Helen Ruth gradually becomes more mature in her outlook, or possibly more resigned to her dull life, but that’s about it. Most of the story is about her relations with the housekeepers, but there’s no depth to them (because, you know, there wasn’t much depth in interracial relations in those days). Her husband and sons get less coverage than the housekeepers.

Frankly, the story is just boring, but at the end Taylor does a bad thing. He has Helen Ruth reflect on what he evidently intends us to see as the theme of the story: “She felt that she would be willing to say anything at all, no matter how cruel or absurd it was, if it would make them [her husband and sons] understand that everything that happened in life only demonstrated in some way the lonesomeness that people felt.” I don’t always agree with the show-don’t-tell criticism, but in this case I’ll go for it.

Taylor was not a novice, either. He wrote several novels and several story collections. He died in 1994.

Tonight I tackled “Daisy’s Valentine,” by Mary Gaitskill. Again, not a novice; her fiction has appeared in The New Yorker and Harper’s, if wikipedia is to be believed. The main character, Joey, is a young speed freak living in New York. He develops what we might charitably call a crush on Daisy, who works in the same office. The office is frankly impossible; there are six or seven people working in what Gaitskill describes as the clerical department of “a filthy second-hand bookstore.” We never actually see the filth; we never see the retail part of the store at all. But I’m pretty sure most retail establishments, even in New York City, are not filthy, because filth tends to drive away customers. Nor is it credible that any second-hand bookstore in the world would be large enough to employ six or seven people in a clerical department. So we’re off to a bad start.

Nothing much happens in the story. After a year or so of dreaming about Daisy, dreams that don’t even seem to be sexual, Joey gives her a valentine. He gives it to her a week late. (This sounds like one of those ideas that New Yorker writers think are stunningly clever.) They start going out, more or less, but Joey is living with another woman and Daisy is living with another man, so they don’t seem to do much other than go out. At the end of the story we don’t even know if they’ve slept together. Joey’s live-in girlfriend has thrown him out, not that their love for one another has ever amounted to anything. But being thrown out seems not to trouble him greatly, and he still has his pointless and unlikely job, so nothing of any great significance has changed in his life, even though the story’s opening sentence suggests that he “might ruin” it. What we have, then, is two pathetic dead-end people, one of them definitely a drug addict, who bumble into a relationship that, while it involves kisses and hugs, doesn’t even qualify as a romance.

Bell’s summary of the plot is, “Simple and sordid — a casebook account of pointlessly self-destructive behavior. Judged by such a bare-bones plot summary, the story is almost too depressing to read.” I think he put his finger on the pulse there. The story is too depressing to bother with, and certainly too depressing to belong in an anthology that purports to serve a tutorial purpose.

In his analysis, he also says, “Not that the cast members of this story are wonderfully likeable people really, but they are portrayed with such convincing detail that the reader cannot help but be interested in them.” Nope. Bad guess. I wasn’t interested. And I can’t quite imagine that any reader would be.

So we have two stories about pathetic losers (Joey and Alex), both addicts, and one about a housewife whose life is very, very boring. Wow, Madison. Do you think you could manage to inspire young writers any more ineptly? Could you possibly manage to put together a book that would nauseate or discourage aspiring writers more powerfully than this? Is this supposed to show us how to write fucking literature?

I want my money back.

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