Sunday, January 18, 2009

The Balance Between Story and Craft

Last week I talked about Anne Enright’s short story collection, Yesterday’s Weather, and how it shows the importance of personal experience in writing. This is a difference between her earlier stories and her later ones that Enright herself noticed and referred to in her introduction. The stylistic shift that I noticed is more subjective and it may not be one that other people would agree with me about.

Enright has a very unique style: her stories are heavy on exposition and the narration tends to shift back and forth quite frequently from the “now” moment of the story itself and the characters’ pasts. There is also a certain vagueness to the storytelling, which is, I think, an attempt at subtlety that in my opinion often goes too far. I would almost call her writing experimental.

I noticed that, while there are certainly exceptions, I generally liked the more recent stories better. When I tried to put my finger on what it was about the more recent stories that I liked, I realized that many of them used this expositional shifting and vagueness far less than the older stories. A lot of them even had a normal amount of exposition, though some of them still had more than most stories would. And the vagueness, while it was still often present in these stories, was much more in line with what I would consider skillfully placed subtle hints about what it all means and what’s going on. The more recent stories seemed less like experiments and more like stories by a writer who has found her voice and has found the right balance for her voice.

It’s interesting, though, that many of the older stories reminded me of the sort of thing you see a lot of in MFA workshops. Writing that seems to focus more on doing something different than on telling a good story. I often think that one of the main differences you see from MFA writers and non-MFA writers is the attention paid to craft. I think a lot of non-MFA writers think more about the story, the plot and what events will take place. Whereas many MFA writers focus more on how to tell the story, what techniques should they employ and how should they structure this piece.

Ultimately, I think you have to focus on both for a story to be very good. More and more literary journals these days include in their submission guidelines that they aren’t interested in the sort of writing that gets manufactured in the MFA machine. Writing that pays little or no attention to plot, the story part of the story, and instead focuses entirely on employing artistic techniques that often leave the story completely incomprehensible unless you read it several times, extremely closely. Something that few readers and no editors will be willing to do. Really, only other writers have any interest in reading this sort of writing.

While Enright’s early stuff still managed to get published, I would argue that she has improved immensely over the years in large part because she has found a good balance between craft and story. I wonder if this is in part because she went and wrote several novels inbetween and you have to learn to pay attention to plot if you want to write a novel. Even writers looking for artistic inspiration are unlikely to bear with you for 300 pages of no plot.

In contrast to Enright’s collection from last week, this week I read a downright terrible book that has the opposite problem from Enright’s earlier work. I’ll talk about that next time.

1 comment:

Justus said...

I read a book about a year or so ago called "Writing the Breakout Novel," or something along those lines. One piece of advice was to actually tell instead of show. I think there is too much emphasis on such craft concerns as showing to the point where things can become unclear, where it's all supposed to be there in the descriptions and the language, but it's not always enough. For example: I'm reading a first novel at the moment by an MFA grad. It's good, and I'm enjoying it, but just last night as I was reading I noticed this problem. There's a scene at a pawn shop, but the words "pawn shop" didn't appear for a couple of pages, and I honestly had no idea where this was taking place or why the characters were doing what they were doing. It struck me as an experiment, like the writer wanted to see how long he could go without clearly telling the reader where this was. Then again, I was reading in bed close to midnight after a day of work, so certainly my mind wasn't in the ideal state for concentration, so maybe I just missed out on significant details I should have picked up on, but what reader's mind will be in that ideal state?