An Inch of Imagination

by rsbakker

Aphorism of the Day: As soon as etiquette, any etiquette, is professionalized, then the quirks that illuminate and individuate are all but doomed. No yardstick is more unforgiving than a well-meaning one. No condescension is more unyielding than kindness.

First, some cherry-picking: Luke Burrage has posted a podcast review of The White-Luck Warrior where he spends the better part of an hour discussing the issue of misogyny in the series. E.D Kain also weighs in on the issue more generally on his blog.

Also, I’m on holidays, and will be for the next several days, so apologies to all those who’ve posted comments. Hopefully I won’t be too buried to reply to them by time I’m back online regularly.

What I really want to discuss was The Atlantic‘s recent Fiction 2011 issue. I’m not sure what to say about the short stories selected, except that I prefer writers whose personality leaps from their prose–the very thing the creative writing industry seems bent on murdering.

What I want to raise as a topic for debate is Bret Anthony Johnston’s pretend article against the literary slogan, “Write what you know.” I say ‘pretend’ simply because I can’t see how anyone committed to the maxim would disagree with anything he says. Since the slogan is aimed at fiction writers, it seems painfully obvious (to me, anyway) that most everyone would paraphase the maxim to mean, “Use what you know to breath life into what you invent.”

In this sense, Johnston’s article isn’t so much critical of the slogan as it’s critical of a certain facile, and my guess is, relatively rare misinterpretation of it. Apparently some of his creative writing students seem reluctant to diverge from ‘what they know’ in any way.

From beginning to the end, Johnston assumes the Priority of the Mundane over the Spectacular. You can bet no one is writing epic fantasy in his class. Personally, this is how I’ve always understood, “write what you know”: as a way to demarcate what is cool – or ‘serious’ – from what is uncool – or ‘silly’ – from the standpoint of a particular, identity-obsessed, in-group – ‘the literary.’ Since the masses have a baseline appreciation, even hunger for, spectacle, one handy way to define yourself over and against the masses is to condemn it, turn it into a marker of what advertisers call, ‘negative reference groups.’ Want to become one of the ‘cultured’? Make a fetish of the mundane, something which this slogan does quite effectively by turning the question of proper content into a question of honesty.

But, like so many self-serving rhetorical ploys, only a question or two is required to pull the whole house of winning-hands down. The resulting implicatures tend to be weak, which is why things get so thorny so quickly if you take such ploys as a basis for further reasoning – which is precisely what Johnston does here.

Consider his final diagnosis of what might be going on:

“What if the reason we find it so difficult to cleave our fiction from experience, the reason we’re so loath to engage our imaginations and let the story rise above the ground floor of truth, isn’t that we’re afraid we’ll do the job poorly, but that we’re afraid we’ll do it too well?”

I still find myself marvelling over this, so much so that I urge you to read the article for yourself. Is he really suggesting that the culprit is the possibility that we writers will be dwarfed by what we write, that our work will blot our role from the reader’s mind, and develop a life of its own?

Is he really saying that what holds these young writers back is the fear that they will actually write the book they dream of writing? Don’t we all write to be blotted out by our creations? Isn’t that the whole point? To say something bigger (with things small – in the case of literary fiction).

Either way, I have a far more likely culprit for his student’s reluctance: status anxiety. His creative wards are desperately trying to join a community obsessed with content and authenticity. What? Me, write from the perspective of a handicapped, black, jewish grandmother?

Like anyone trying to ‘learn the ropes’ of any unforgiving social game, the literary wannabes in Johnston’s class are simply ‘playing it safe.’  They see a genre that defines itself against imaginative ‘excess’ – commercial genre – so they find themselves afraid to use their imagination at all.

And this suggests that Johnston’s essay is actually about something far different than what it purports to be: a crisis of imagination in a moribund institution, desperately rooting about for ways to affirm its relevance and vitality.

I’ll let Johnston have the final words… (well, almost):

“Writers may enter their stories through literal experience , through the ground floor, but fiction brings with it an obligation to rise past the base level, to transcend the limitations of fact and history, and proceed skyward…”

 But only a few inches, no more.